What Can We Know From an Armchair? Research Time, 25/03/2014

I haven’t had much time to explore Karl Mannheim’s work in detail just yet, what with moving everything we own to a new apartment and slowly unpacking it in a relatively sane manner, finishing up the script for You Were My Friend, and working on my paid editing jobs. But I did notice an intriguing point that Mannheim made in the very first pages of his introduction.

He actively engages with philosophy as a discipline, remarking that his own project in examining the social aspects of knowledge is a significant departure from other investigations into the subject. Epistemology has traditionally been the venue of philosophers, and if you ask a gathering of philosophers, it obviously remains so. Some close friends of mine are currently working on projects in epistemology within philosophy departments, in regions of research dominated by philosophical journals and disciplinary philosophical conversations. 

So Mannheim, writing in the 1930s, would have been engaged with philosophers in his work on the nature of knowledge, at least as peers, if not as explicit conversation partners. Not even as peers, really, but as members of the discipline that has dominated all talk of the nature of knowledge. 

I've come to hypothesize that problems of skepticism and
justifications of individual knowledge, stereotypes of
armchair philosophy, are so ubiquitous in this discipline
because René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy
is one of the easiest traditional texts to teach. It was of
immense historical importance, but it makes some
problems appear more important than others, which makes
it so hard to get philosophers out of their armchairs.
And the first thing he does is launch a critique which, while launching the field of sociology of knowledge within that discipline, had little to no effect on the development of philosophy. He lays out the philosophical approach to problems of knowledge as focussing exclusively on the individual case. How do I have knowledge of the world around me, that my representations and experiences are reliable? How do I justify what I believe as knowledge of how the world truly is? These are the types of questions that a single person can ask from the isolation of his office or armchair.

Mannheim also critiques the focus on scientific knowledge, the justification of complex theories of physics about how the world is in its fundamental nature. Not that such questions are not important, but one of Mannheim’s central concerns in Ideology and Utopia is with the knowledge of ordinary people in their daily interactions with each other. These are social, political questions about people’s knowledge in everyday interactions, how what they know, believe, and are certain of shapes their day-to-day activity. In the focus of the philosophical discipline at the time on questions regarding the reliability of erudite mathematical science and the reliability of individual representations and experiences, this dimension of everyday interaction has been forgotten.

And it remained forgotten. I don’t have the knowledge right now to make a case for how it was forgotten, but I know it was. When I was taught the history of philosophy over the 20th century as an undergraduate, and in more detail throughout my graduate work, Mannheim’s critiques never appeared. Neither was anything like he said picked up in later critiques of the philosophical trends of the 1930s. Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin’s ordinary language philosophy received more focus, and were the dominant ideas in the philosophical reaction to Bertrand Russell’s work and logical positivism. Only in sociology was Mannheim a historical reference figure, and even there, he isn’t a major one.*

* Although sociology as a discipline does not emphasize to the same degree as philosophy its own history. Usually, the major historical figures of undergraduate sociological education, to the best of my knowledge, are the central triumvirate of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. Even Auguste Comte is sometimes lucky to find a place.

Only recently has philosophy as a discipline considered critiques of the same flavour as Mannheim’s all that seriously. Here, I’m talking about the growth of experimental philosophy, with its lovely images of burning armchairs. The provocation of this movement is to get philosophers out of the habits of only considering knowledge in terms of the beliefs and representations of individuals, and understanding how worldly life shapes knowledge beyond the construction of skepticism problems and Gettier cases that have come to resemble Rube Goldberg machines (one of my favourites being "Fake Barn Country") more than actual situations of life. But I’m not sure how successful it will be. Just look at how well disciplinary philosophy ignored Karl Mannheim.

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